The Lost Art of Thinking

On numerous occasions as a management consultant, I asked execs about how much time they took to think about process, innovation or strategy. Often, the response was that they didn’t have time to think. A couple said that they were paying me to do the thinking. A compliment, but very unwise. And I provided a very deliberate rationale for refusing that business opportunity.

So how did we get to the place where managers don’t realize that thinking is part of their job? In a very thoughtful and fascinating article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Duncan Simester pointed out that the bias for doing, not thinking, is built into business. Companies succeed by creating a successful business model—and then scaling it massively. Massive scaling requires a “finely tuned system with highly standardized processes.” So, getting promoted requires “almost a singular focus on execution.

In other words, it requires action more than thinking.” So guess what? It’s inevitable that we focus on what we get rewarded for. And in business, that’s execution.

The smart thinkers I’ve met in business simply refuse to get involved in much execution which would set aside their need for thinking. In other words, to get more thinking people firms are going to have to change the work situation–for at least a select group. Admittedly selection processes have a limited record of accuracy. Still, the process for developing thinkers will have more success than what goes on today. Years ago, one of the major firms to which I consulted offered year long, internship experiences with senior officers for their fast track people. They had a significant amount of success in developing thinkers who could take on the jobs of creativity and complexity. and strategists. 3M Corporation has had great success with similar projects over the years. And of course, the better business thinkers, like 3M, have better business.

The need for thinkers in business is obvious to many executives. One of my clients, a Pillsbury EVP in research and development…

noticing my thinking skills, said that he could keep me busy the rest of my life if I could teach strategy–if I could teach people how to think. I laughed and said, “no way.” I commented that as a rule, business people think in linear fashion, not in big picture, strategic fashion. All their work is inherently tactical execution. That’s the same perspective I saw in Simester’s recent argument. For that Pillsbury exec to have success, he would have to take his people out of linear execution and mentor them for a long time to develop thinkers. There is no such thing as an instant thinker. After all, the level of complexity in innovation and strategy is a lot more than typical execution.

As I write this, I’m reminded that when top technologists get promoted to manager, they have great difficulty making a successful transition. The obvious conclusion? Outstanding doing doesn’t necessarily make for great innovation, strategy, effective management—or great thinking.

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